Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 856
After Babel echoes and enhances George Steiner’s previous writings about the relationships between language, literature, and culture. The reason for this preoccupation—Steiner discusses it directly in the beginning of “Word Against Object”— is the fact that Steiner is trilingual, thinking and communicating with equal facility in German, French, and English. (Another reason, discussed elsewhere but not in After Babel, is Steiner’s need as a Jew for confronting the problems which the Holocaust raises for the continuity of European culture.) The titles of an earlier work, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (1967), and of a later work, On Difficulty and Other Essays (1978), point to Steiner’s constant interrogation of language’s relation to gnosis, of the “fit” between language and thought, of the possibilities of thought beyond or between the rules of language.
Steiner’s structure of argumentation in After Babel is different from most. Most arguments either begin with complexity and variety and try to explain them by some underlying principle (inductive method) or else derive various ideas from a fundamental axiom (deductive method). Steiner’s method resembles the latter in that a single simple principle or controversy forms the basis of most of his chapters. Nevertheless, he rarely attempts to complicate his thesis or derive lemmas from it. Rather, he can be seen as using the medieval rhetorical device of amplificatio or amplification. In medieval poetics, a single theme, a description of Helen, for example, can be carried on over many pages through the use of various rhetorical devices; indeed, the theme often serves as an excuse for a rhetorical tour de force. Thus with Steiner a simple question such as “why are there so many languages?” must be continually rephrased, each part of it carefully defined with numerous examples, before the answer “because of the varieties of human situation and perception,” again subject to numerous rephrasings, can be proffered.
These numerous rephrasings and examples are—along with the asking of impossible questions—the hallmark of Steiner’s style. He brings together many texts from vastly different periods, languages, and cultures. Indeed, the assemblage and interaction of texts from this variety of cultures, languages, epochs, and disciplines constitute Steiner’s signature as a scholar. Steiner’s unique achievement, enacted through these often-startling juxtapositions, is to provide an interdisciplinary view of language and culture by treating, for example, Franz Kafka as a linguist, Benjamin Whorf as a philosopher, and W. V. O. Quine as a translation theorist.
After Babel has a prolegomenon, a short introduction, written for The Penguin Book of Modern Verse Translation (1966), a book of English poems based on texts in other languages which Steiner also edited. In that introduction Steiner raises virtually all the points dealt with at much greater length in After Babel. In the earlier work, Steiner’s main point is to prove that translation per se is impossible, that the translation of poetry is the most impossible translation, and that thus only the creation of another poem in another language, a response to the previous poem, can do any justice to its original. Steiner’s definition of translation, which he chose to emphasize through the use of italics, becomes that for which he will later argue in “Topologies of Culture,” the last chapter of After Babel:I have taken translation to include the writing of a poem in which a poem in another language (or in an earlier form of one’s own language) is the vitalizing, shaping presence; a poem which can be read and responded to independently but which is not ontologically complete, a previous poem being its occasion, begetter, and in the literal sense, raison d’etre.
In turn, “Topologies of Culture” looks ahead to Steiner’s next major book, Antigones (1979), in which Steiner traces the Antigone theme in its many transformations from the Greeks to the present day. Modern literature may be said to “translate” the Antigone theme into modern dress and language.
Though Steiner’s discussion is extremely wide-ranging, he returns again and again to the German poets, theorists, and philosophers as the heart and soul of translatory thinking. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Holderlin, and Walter Benjamin emerge, along with Whorf and Western literature in general, as the real heroes of After Babel. German thoughts about and practice of translation have been consistently more mystical than those of any other nation, and Steiner shares this bent—again, Steiner’s Jewish background undoubtedly also plays a role here. He seems to share Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief that language’s purpose is the creation of illusion, for reality is death. Like Martin Heidegger (the subject of one of Steiner’s later treatises), Steiner posits a fundamental relation between language and worldview. Most basically, like that of the Germans, Steiner’s view of translation is always aimed at those who can read both the original and its re-creation. Translation is not done merely to appease the ignorant who have not bothered to learn the original language but rather to explore the original poem, to attempt to fill in its linguistic cracks, to make it mean something in a particular way.